Popular character continues to inspire fans worldwide

Thursday marks the 75th birthday of Pippi Longstocking, a character created by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren for her daughter’s 10th birthday who went on to become one of the most popular characters in modern children’s literature.

When she died in 2002 aged 94, Lindgren had written 34 books and 41 picture books, selling 165 million copies in more than 100 languages, making her the fourth most-translated children’s author in the world.

The adventures of Pippi, the super-strong red-haired 9-year-old with a trunk full of gold, who lives on an island with Mr Nelson the monkey and Old Man the horse, have delighted readers for decades, particularly in China, where they have been a hit on the page and on the stage.

As the rights manager of the Astrid Lindgren Company, Lindgren’s great-grandson, Johan Palmberg, has responsibility for her work and her legacy.

He said she could never have anticipated what she was creating when she published her first book, just days after the end of World War II in Europe.

“There was no overarching story – she just wrote it for her daughter on her birthday, and then wrote more stories later because they’d gone so well. There was no advance plan,” he explained. “She said she mainly wrote for the child she remembered having been, and she was adamant she wouldn’t write things that went over children’s heads.”

That birthday gift launched Lindgren on a career that saw her win awards worldwide, honored at home on bank notes, and having a children’s hospital and even an asteroid named after her.

Cited as an inspiration by figures as diverse as Michelle Obama and Madonna, with her striking untidy appearance and bright red hair, Pippi has become a timeless pop culture icon, as well as a book character.

“People send me images of her from all over the world,” said Palmberg. “The other day, I saw her on a T-shirt in a market in Bangladesh, and also a soldier in Croatia with a picture of her.”

Pippi’s message of honesty and self-belief has also seen her adopted by the charity Save the Children International for its Pippi of Today campaign, helping refugee girls find their inner strength.

“The idea behind that is that displaced girls are always the last ones to benefit from any help that is coming into a family, so we want to focus on them and help them,” Palmberg said. And in the novel coronavirus era, Pippi is even more universal.

“Her message is, if you are strong and have power, you should use it to help others,” he explained. “Now more than ever, solidarity is important.”

When the crisis is over, Pippi fans will have a new film to enjoy, made by Canal Plus, producers of the hugely successful Paddington movies.

“We’ve had about one offer every week for the last 10 years, but I’m very excited about this,” he explained. “We wanted to find a partner that had a track record of taking high-value literary projects, putting them on the big screen, honoring the subject and making something even better. We’ve been careful but this feels like a match made in heaven.”

The virus also spoiled birthday celebrations planned worldwide, but one that is going ahead on Thursday is an online performance by British theater producer and storyteller Danyah Miller, who experienced Pippi’s popularity in China first-hand.

“When I performed in Hong Kong and asked for children’s favorite characters, Pippi was hugely popular, much more so that in the UK,” she explained.

Miller is the producer of a Pippi stage musical that earned spectacular reviews last year, and said the character inspired her as an adult.

“Astrid Lindgren created such a strong, playful, generous female character and there aren’t many of them around,” she said. “I grew up in a disciplinarian home, so when Pippi came into my life and pushed those boundaries of what adults can say, and how children can stand up, she was a breath of fresh air. Pippi allows people to be who they are. That’s really inspiring.”

She even inspired Miller when tragedy struck as, days before signing the contract for the stage musical, her husband died.

“We would have produced it together, and doing it on my own pushed me outside my comfort zone,” she said. “There have honestly been times when I’ve had situations to deal with and I’ve said ‘how would Pippi deal with this?’ She’s been a real companion over the last two years.”

Thursday’s story performance was filmed at home in lockdown, and will be shown through the Oxford Owl Facebook page. Miller hopes it will prove a popular hit with young and old, female – and male.

“For years, boys wouldn’t read a book with a girls’ title, so they miss out on half the stories in the world. That’s so sad. Would Harry Potter have sold as well if it had been called Hermione Grainger?” she said. “It’s a shame that we still have that resistance. Pippi is a fantastic character. She just happens to be a girl.”

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